26th Jan 2021

Tories continue to mellow on EU policy

  • William Hague (c) meeting his new team as UK foreign minister (Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

UK foreign minister William Hague has pledged support for the EU's diplomatic service and economic growth agenda in a surprisingly mild policy statement.

"It is true that we in the Conservative Party were not persuaded of the case for the new EU External Action Service as a service, but its existence is now a fact ...Britain's Conservative government will work closely with the high representative, whom we wish well," he wrote on Tuesday (18 May) in a column for Europe's World, a policy journal with close links to the Brussels-based, pro-integration think-tank Friends of Europe.

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He spoke warmly of EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy's ideas on economic reform: "Herman Van Rompuy has accurately said, 'we need more economic growth, now and in the future' and has rightly identified competitiveness as a key issue."

The diplomatic service and the Council president, who is routinely lambasted in British media, are the main embodiments of closer EU integration under the Lisbon Treaty.

Mr Hague's article is the latest in a series of attempts by the Conservative Party to moderate its eurosceptic image since coming to power in a coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats last week.

The Europe's World statement is also marked by lack of defensive comment on the City of London, despite being published on the morning of a major debate by EU finance ministers in Brussels on joint economic governance and hedge fund regulations.

Outlining traditional British foreign policy priorities, Mr Hague said the EU should play a more robust role in the Balkans and championed Turkish accession.

"There is a strong argument for the threat of targeted sanctions against politicians who undermine the Bosnian state," he said. "Turkey's membership would refute those who claim that there is a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam, and would make Turkey an ideal interlocutor between Europe and the Middle East."

On the Europe 2020 growth strategy, he underlined "better enforcement of single market rules and [taking] full advantage of the opportunities offered by e-commerce" as well as action on the bloc's "fragmented licensing and copyright regimes."

He also restated the Conservative Party's recent turn-around on pre-election plans to categorically opt out of EU social and criminal legislation.

Mr Hague spoke instead of seeking "specific British guarantees on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the operation of the EU's competence in criminal justice and on social and employment legislation," adding: "We will take our time, negotiating firmly, patiently and respectfully, and aim to achieve these guarantees over the lifetime of our newly-elected parliament."

But he sharply attacked the EU's working time directive, which limits the working week to 48 hours. "Such regulation discredits the EU when it creates serious problems for public services, as it has by damaging patient care in Britain," the minister said.

Both the Conservatives and the former Labour government have long been united in opposing such worker protections.

Correction: this article was amended at 11.00 CET on 19 May. The original version referred to Europe's World as "the house journal" of Friends of Europe and it said Friends of Europe is a "pro-federalist" NGO

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